For twenty-five years, TNI has worked closely with rural communities involved in illicit cultivation of coca, opium poppy, and cannabis, including in complicated conflict situations like in Colombia and Myanmar, where TNI has been involved in peace-building efforts for many years. We have helped such small-scale producers across the world find a voice in national and international policy spaces and, most recently, to participate in the legal (medical) market. To support advocacy efforts primarily from the perspective of small-scale producers, TNI has cultivated a strong network of legal experts, convened informal Drug Policy Dialogues facilitating dialogues between government officials from over 30 countries, UN agencies and civil society on better ways forward, and we have worked with local authorities to share best practices in reducing the negative consequences of illicit drug markets on individuals and society. TNI has earned a reputation as one of the most knowledgeable watchdogs of the UN drug control system, and our advice is sought by many governments, UN agencies and NGOs.

Over the last five years, TNI has contributed to major shifts in the global drugs policy process and narrative. The monopoly of the drug control agencies in Vienna has been broken, with an enhanced role now for other UN agencies. Major results include the adoption by the heads of all 31 entities of the UN system of a groundbreaking UN system common position on drug policy which includes decriminalisation of drug use and the importance of a human rights and development-led drug policy, and is accompanied by a Task Team to follow through on it; the joint launch by the International Centre on Human Rights and Drug Policy, UNAIDS, WHO and UNDP of ‘International Human Rights Guidelines for Drug Policy’; and adoption by the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) of a recommendation to remove cannabis from Schedule IV of the 1961 Convention, thereby symbolically acknowledging the medicinal usefulness of cannabis. The latter was a direct result of concerted advocacy by TNI towards key countries which subsequently voted in favour of the recommendation. TNI has also played a crucial role in supporting individual states such as Uruguay and Bolivia on their journeys to legalise and regulate cannabis and the traditional use of coca leaf, respectively, as well as work with Canada in exploring the option of an inter se agreement by which a number of progressive states could collectively agree to move beyond the terms of the treaties. By 2020, it was clear that there was a real possibility of an historic rescheduling of cannabis at the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND). The question then would be whether small-scale cannabis farmers, who had long paid the price of illegality, would benefit or whether possible future markets would be captured by big companies.

The CND vote to change the status of cannabis became a reality in December 2020. This represented an opportunity to further reform and decolonise drug control approaches across the globe and to strengthen the international legal basis for cannabis programmes in different parts of the world. In the lead up to the vote, TNI co-published a series of advocacy notes on what cannabis rescheduling could mean for Africa and the Caribbean and co-hosted multiple online briefings. TNI also supported a new Caribbean Fair Trade Cannabis Working Group to develop a position paper, which addresses cannabis policy developments in the Caribbean region and the need for the inclusion of traditional cannabis farmers in the medical cannabis market. And, in Morocco, TNI and (local) partners started to work towards a pilot project to involve traditional cannabis farmers from the Rif in the medical cannabis market. We co-organized a pioneering workshop on medical cannabis with representatives of the Amazigh people and communities around Mount Tidighin, convened by the Confederation of Associations for Senhaja People’s Development in the Rif. Local partners, including women and younger people, met to discuss the possibilities a legal medical cannabis market could bring.

There were also key developments at the European Union. Encouraged by TNI and partners, EU member states approved a new, more progressive EU Strategy on Drugs, including suggestions from civil society. The strategy includes references to human rights, the UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs outcome document and the UN Common Position on Drug Policy. It is important that the EU has agreed language defending the importance of human rights in the context of drug control and reinforcing the UN Common Position which can be referred to for purposes of further shifting mindsets at the UN drug control agencies in Vienna. At the CND in March 2020, following concerted advocacy by TNI and partners, the EU, Switzerland, Norway, Mexico, Canada and New Zealand all underlined the importance of the UN Common Position.

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic led a number of governments to release an unprecedented number of people from prison – often small-time drug offenders – and to curb new admissions. A number of countries took steps to legalise adult use of cannabis, including Mexico, Carribbean countries, and most remarkably the US Federal law – the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act – which placed issues of social justice and reparation for communities most affected by the war on drugs at the centre of the debate. Mass incarcerations have been the consequence of repressive drug policies, with massive social impact. TNI co-organised a webinar where activists and researchers from Indonesia, Colombia, the USA and Sierra Leone shared ideas about how the pandemic could serve as a moment of change in the longstanding practice of mass incarceration for drug offences. A total of 970 people from 58 countries registered and received the recording and 556 joined live. TNI and partners also collaborated on a series of webinars exploring how the so-called ‘war on drugs’ has undermined progress towards development goals for decades – fuelling violence, conflict and corruption, undermining democracy, and driving poverty, inequality and poor health worldwide, and how a new approach to drugs could prioritise, promote and protect health and well-being, help address poverty and inequality, and contribute to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Featuring speakers from the development sector, drug policy reform movement, and civil society, we explored how drug policies intersect with some of the most pressing issues facing the Global South today. TNI staff also gave well-attended lectures on agrarian justice and human rights in development-orientated drug control at the first online Brandenburg Academy, organised by the Global Partnership on Drug Policies and Development, in which TNI is a partner. The Academy provides policy makers with in-depth courses on specific drug policy issues.

In Colombia, however, policy was again going in the other direction. The Ministry of Justice published a draft law that would allow the resumption of aerial spraying of coca crops, after it was suspended in 2016 in the context of the peace process. TNI supported partners there in responding to the threat. A meeting was convened at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Bogotá, which included representatives of farmers and indigenous peoples, lawyers, representatives of UN agencies and human rights NGOs. TNI is supporting local communities to prepare a collective action should the spraying restart.


The key results to which TNI contributed significantly in 2020 include:

  • The UN CND approved recommendation 5.1 to remove cannabis from Schedule IV of the 1961 Convention
  • At the CND, Switzerland, Norway, the EU, Mexico, Canada and New Zealand all recognized the importance of the progressive UN Common Position on Drug Policy.
  • EU member states rejected the European Commission’s Agenda on Drug Policy and, instead, approved a new EU Strategy on Drugs, including references to Human Rights and the UN Common Position on Drugs.
  • A new Caribbean Working Group was established and launched a position paper based on fair trade principles and aimed at CARICOM countries.
  • 85 policy makers from different continents attended two sessions of the first online Brandenburg Academy on drugs and development.
  • 970 people from 58 countries joined a webinar on Covid as a moment to rethink mass incarceration.